As we’ve emphasized before, it’s almost certain that sea levels will rise at least one metre because of climate change, impacting coastal communities. Coastal adaptation to reduce flood and erosion risks is essential.

We must alter our behaviours, systems, and even ways of life, to protect our families, economies and the environment.

In the UK, Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) have been prepared to describe how risks will be managed over the next 100 years. There are four main policy options.

  • Hold the line Maintain or change current standards of defence.
  • Advance the line Build new defences on the seaward side. This is relevant for land reclamation and is rarely used.
  • Managed realignment Allow the shoreline to move forwards or backwards in a managed way, accepting that additional land will be lost to the sea.
  • No active intervention Do not invest in coastal defences.

As an example, managed realignment can be difficult to implement. It was selected for the community of Fairbourne in north Wales, but was initially very poorly managed. The council and Welsh Government support systems were ill-prepared to deal with the community and media backlash and the Fairbourne community became known as ‘climate refugees’.

Lessons learnt

In 2021, the Defra report ‘Understanding effective flood and coastal erosion risk governance in England and Wales’ evaluated how coastal adaptation could be managed better.

This included evaluation of:

  • line of sight regarding roles and responsibilities
  • decision making based on place
  • resource efficiency including funding and organisational capacity
  • collaboration in the form of multi-stakeholder planning
  • integration of multi-agency plans
  • long-term sustainability and strategic vision
  • participation and involvement working with communities
  • the evidence of data supporting long-term planning
  • accountability and clarity of responsibility.

Key findings, tailored to Wales but relevant to England, include the following.

  • The responsibilities for coastal adaptation are unclear and appear to be slipping through the gaps created by siloed and fragmented The lack of clarity has implications for holding actors to account.
  • The legal remit needs to be clarified and established for roles and responsibilities relating to climate change adaptation.
  • Collaboration and partnership working could dilute accountability and blur the boundaries of responsibilities and associated liabilities.
  • SMPs lack awareness and those outside risk management authorities are not sufficiently accessible.
  • The Welsh National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy lacks long-term ambition, with many measures focused on 2021/22. Adaptation is not an explicit objective in the revised strategy and the Welsh Government lacks urgency in addressing adaptation challenges.
  • Scrutiny bodies in England and Wales have highlighted the complexity and confusion of roles and responsibilities. This concern was also voiced by some interviewees, alongside calls for a legislative review (including the Coast Protection Act 1949 and the Flood and Water Management Act 2010)
  • There are some mismatches between those with roles/responsibilities and those with capacity/capability to act, especially at local level
  • Regional Flood Groups have certain limitations in relation to their non-statutory nature, the lack of seniority in members and ‘inability of current members to make corporate commitments’, so the groups often lack strategic direction.

Should current legislation be reviewed?

The Coast Protection Act was published in 1949. Many industry actors feel that it is not aligned with coastal adaptation, and are calling for a legislative review.

Local authorities have responsibilities under the Coast Protection Act, but the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales also have responsibilities for flood risk management, alongside operators of road and rail infrastructure.

Clarity is also lacking in relation to the funding and resourcing of dedicated proactive management of adaptation strategies over the medium to long term.

The last word

Our Director and Head of Consultancy, Paul Blackman, is a member of the Wales Flood and Coastal Erosion Committee, which provides advice to the Welsh Government on all aspects of flood and coastal risk management in Wales.

One of the workstreams of the committee is a review of the policy and legislation around flood and coastal risk management. A sub-committee has been formed to focus attention on:

  • flood risk adaptation and resilience, both on the coast and inland
  • flood risk asset control (including the role of the Flood and Water Management Act)
  • risk management authority roles and responsibilities

The Committee’s recommendations for Welsh ministers are being finalized over the coming months and we’ll provide an update when these are published.